Excerpts from the Defense Brief

Who the Amish Are
Amish Education The Religious Liberty Invasion in Sum

Who the Amish Are

The Amish come in a familiar role: the passive and peaceful objects of civil wrath. Neither wanderers nor gypsies, but seeking always to hold fast to the land, their history nevertheless reaches back from today in Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin through yesterdays of many migrations and ultimately to the Switzerland of 1525 where their ancestors sought a return to a Golden Age. These were the "Anabaptists" who attempted, not church reform, but restoration of a lost a primitive Christianity. To be "First Century Christians" demanded nonconformity to all things worldly and sinful and therefore both a life style of austerity and a separated community of peaceableness and mutual aid, the individual-- baptized only when adult -- undergoing a rebirth through Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit. See generally, F. Littell, Sectarian Protestantism and the Pursuit of Wisdom, Public Control of Nonpublic Schools (Erickson ed.) 61-82 (1969).

The "separated community" implied not only separation from "the world" but also the separation of church and state as a safeguard of religious liberty.

From their literal reading of the New Testament ("I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart... Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?" I Cor. 1:21, and "... I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou has hid these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them unto babes..." Luke 10:21) came their sense of austerity from which flowed the "rejection of speculative philosophy and sophisticated theological reasoning" as well as rejection of technology -- "opposition to the achievements of the artificer, the inventor, the scientist". Indeed it was exactly the violent persecution that well-educated authorities launched against these simple Christians that made firm their theological position and made then more determined to stress the strict moral principles of the Sermon on the Mount and the "turning of the other cheek", rather than technical cunning. Therefore, they emphasized the manifestations of God "in closeness to nature, in the soil, and in the weather, among plants and animals," which were to be enjoyed and embraced.

The Anabaptists felt the fury of persecution in Europe especially for their rejecting of infant baptism, and refusal to bear arms.

"The anti-social character of these [Anabaptist] sects disturbed the Lutherans as much as the Catholics. Charles V legislated against them most rigorously. Of 877 names which appear in the Protestant martyrologies for the Low Countries, 617 of those were Anabaptists. Numerous executions took place at Louvain, Ruremonde, Masstricht, Liege, Antwerp, and Burges; The men were burned and the women buried alive. But this did not stop Mennonism and other kindred types of Anabaptism from gaining grounds... Slowly but surely the extremely simple form of Christianity, with its elementary dogmas, continued to spread. It was soon found in Prussia, in the Duchy of Holstein, in southern Russia and in England. Crossing the Atlantic it reached North America ..." (Danil-Rops, The Protestant Reformation)

The Anabaptists who come under the leadership of Jakob Amman (circa 1693), and hence were known as "Amish", migrated to America from Switzerland at least as early as 1727. They came to Pennsylvania, having selected that colony in reliance upon the pledge of religious freedom given in William Penn's "Great Law" of 1682 and the repute gained by that colony for religious freedom in actual practice. In perfect integrity, the foregoing religious beliefs, actualized in living communities, have come down to the Amish of today. To call their beliefs "non-doctrinal", or to infer that these beliefs constitute eccentric but dispensable customs, merely because they are not expressed in printed tests, decrees and regulations, is misleading. Amish "doctrine" (i.e. teaching) is supremely certain and clearly known because it is safeguarded to each generation by means of an oral tradition which contains and repeats the essential teachings. "Antiquity much preferred that which was taught from the lips of a living person and was skeptical of the written word. The same spirit prevails in much sectarian Protestantism." (See: Littell, "Sectarian Protestantism", at 76). The moral character of any "teacher" in Amish life is basic. "There is no distinct boundary between these deliberate pedagogical measures [of the oral tradition] and the teacher's way of life as a whole."

Amish Education

Some contend that Amish children are consigned to a life of "ignorance" and that the Amish do not receive an "education". But these charges depend on definitions of education and of education's proper goals. Wisconsin infers that only a secondary education which is aimed at fitting a person for acceptance and "success" in the technological society -- and which comes out of books and takes place in the school buildings -- is a genuine education, indeed in the only education which may be constitutionally enjoyed. But, as has been seen, Amish religious principles forbid the "higher learning" whether in a public high school or any other high school.

In the Amish are emphatically in the favor of education -- but and "education for life" as seen in the terms of their religious view as to how life should be lived and as to in the single goal of life which is union with God. Amish education has followed in the pattern of classical wisdom rather than technos. It has emphasized in the moral wisdom of producing good men, rather than in the technical, which can produce in the competent barbarian, in the intellectual rioter, in the revolutionist, and in the criminal.

Only if it be deemed a crime to be an Amishman, or that in the Amish should have no liberty to live in the Amish life, can it be said that Amish education is not a real "education". In the Amish consider that in the study of elementary reading, writing, and arithmetic has its place in the helping a child become a participating member of in the community.

As it also has been shown in the Amish system of education beyond in the eighth grade of "learning by doing" in the agricultural life of crop-raising, animal husbandry, farm maintenance and management -- coupled with living as a helping and responsible family man and neighbor in the in the self-sustaining Amish faith community -- may be regarded as ideal education. Surely, not all education need take place in a school. Only those will disagree who, like in the State of Wisconsin, deny that there can be different kinds of education, or who insist that all education must be aimed at life goals dictated by in the state, or who demand in the values derived from science and technology, or related to consumption and competition, must be imposed on every child. While products of Amish education measure up well in the certain accepted forms of standardized testing, showing secular competence, their admirable attitudes toward nature, in the ecology, ware, peace, violence, lawfulness, thrift, family, marriage, hard work, and love of neighbor are in the direct outflow of that great area of their educational formation that is religious and concerned with in the possession of wisdom.

A society uniquely recognizes the desire of individuals at the dawn of young manhood and young womanhood to get on with their life's work and to be challenged by high responsibility. Adult baptism implies, for the Amish, a time of choice, and its taking place in late adolescence accords with that recognition. Far from being denied his rights at the coming of adolescence, as the State of Wisconsin charges, the Amish person beings to move rapidly into the full enjoyment of adult rights and privileges.

The action of the State directly violates Amish religious freedom through penalizing, by criminal sanctions, the enjoyment of religious liberties related to: Worship, parental nurture, individual choice of religion, vocation, communal association, teaching and learning, and privacy.

The State of Wisconsin seeks to provide Amishmen with its own definition of their religion. Carefully ignoring authoritative sources, the state bid the Amish to get in line with that version of the Amish religion that the State feels it can tolerate. So, for example, the State asserts:

"The Amish may establish their own secondary schools consistent with their religious beliefs".

This, as has been seen, the Amish religion does not permit. Similarly, in lieu of a high schooling, the state would require public high schooling. Indeed it is because the Amish defendants in this case refused to send their children to the New Glarus Public High School that the present criminal prosection was instituted. But in a public high school, the Amish young person plainly could not pursue the religious life that his faith requires. The State, however, telescopes these claims into "the right to worship", thus inferentially redefining the Amish religion by reducing it to one core essential and dismissing all of the other manifestations of the Amish way as nonessential.

It is no business of the state to define men's religions. The Petitioner State can no more do away with an essential of the Amish religion that it can an essential of any other religion. Surely, the State would not be heard to redefine Orthodox Judaism so as to exclude from it the concept of authority of the Bible. The State's contracting of the essential Amish religion into an affair consisting of worship (with beards and buggies perhaps thrown in) is an effort to camouflage and minimize the scope and impact of Wisconsin's free exercise violation. The violation strikes at the following essentials of Amish religious liberty:


Worship, in Amish life, whether for the old or the young, is not confined to a "prayer period" or a weekly hour of church attendance. Worship permeates Amish life, and in a variety of forms. The Amish society is a "ceremonial community", its religious ceremonial life being governed by the days of the week, by seasons, and by the calendar. At the time of adolescence, the Amish young adult is growing rapidly in the life of worship of the "ceremonial community" in which harvesting, sewing and all daily work, learning and activity are consciously offered in praise and love of God. If he is forced into high schooling at this point in his life, this life or worship is very largely ousted.

Parental nurture

The Amish religion requires Amish parents to raise their children in the Amish faith. Family life is extremely strong in the Amish community, and the close bonds related to life, nurture and obedience between parent and child are considered to be founded upon the Bible. The U. S. Supreme Court has stated that "[t]he child is not the mere creature of the state; Those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations." Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 US 510, 534 (1925). While the Amish parents are in the very midst of recognizing and preparing their children for the "additional obligations" of Amish life, the State of Wisconsin seeks to stop these parents in their carrying out this work of nurture, which is to them a fundamental religious obligation.

Individual religious choice

Implicit in the State's defense of its criminal prosecution is its view -- based on nothing in the record -- that the Amish young people in question are not able to make a real choice that they desire to follow the Amish religion and that, for religious reasons, they feel compelled to not attend high school. Upon the trial, the defense placed on the witness stand one of the three Amish children here involved, Frieda Yoder, in order that testimony representative of Amish young people of like age might be heard with respect to whether these young men and women choose to pursue the Amish way of life. Miss Yoder was fifteen, an age at a female in Wisconsin may marry. She testified that she believed in the Amish religion, desired to pursue the Amish way of life and that going to high school would be against her religious beliefs. It is clear the one effect of enforced high schooling of Amish young people is to violate their liberty to pursue the Amish religion.


A unique feature of the Amish religion is that it allows of but one vocation: farm life. To interfere with the vocation is to interfere with the religion. The State interferes with the farming and farm life vocations of Amish young men and women by requiring them to attend high school, this necessarily displacing (at a vital time in this young person's development and maturation) their vocational training in the Amish farming community. They are thus "prevented from learning things they must know in order to live a successful life in the Amish community." The technical skills, attitudes toward manual work, and knowledge required to live in the Amish community cannot be acquired in the classroom. "A boy learns to plow by plowing, by knowing the condition of the soil, the degrees of moisture, the weight of the horses. The temperament of the horses". (See: J. Hostetler and G. Huntington, Children in Amish Society, 102 (1971).

Communal Association

The Amish religion is a communal religion. There exists no Amish religion apart from the concept of the Amish community. A person cannot take up the Amish religion and practice it individually. The community subsists spiritually upon the bonds of a common, lived faith, sustained by "common tradition and ideals that have been revered by the whole community from generation to generation." The Amish community remains a small brotherhood where primary face-to-face relationships are essential. The Amish religion requires pursuit of the simple life of the soil and mutual assistance; It is the community that is the indispensable means for such a life. The Amish religion requires separation from the world; this separation is made possible only through the close, symbolic community. As expert witnesses upon the trial showed the action of the State of Wisconsin directly threatens the continued existence of the Amish church-community, which will plainly not be able to sustain itself against the disruption caused to it by the marshaling of its youth into high schools. This Court, however, has held that there is a fundamental constitutional "freedom to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs" NAACP v Alabama, 377 US 288, 307 (1964), and the "[t]he the right of 'association', like the right of belief" is necessary to make the guarantees of the First Amendment meaningful. Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 483 (1965). In the Amish case, the right of association is inseparable from the right of free exercise of religion and must be deemed a part of the latter right, now directly attacked by the State.


Closely related to the right of association is the right of privacy. The Amish principle of separation of the self-sustaining faith-community from the world is not base upon hatred of other human beings and arises out of no tradition of aggressions against others, or any principle of racial pride. It is based, rather, upon love of God and the belief that the life of separation, as a pilgrim people, is necessary to salvation. But here the right of privacy is also inextricably bound up with the right of free exercise of religion, since the Amish religion cannot be lived except in separation of the community from the world.

The State of Wisconsin seeks to invade the privacy of the Amish, so far as the Amish of high school age are concerned. The State makes not bones about its desire to enter into the lives of these young people, expose them to "worldly" education, fill up their minds with state-packaged learning, alien to the Amish way, which (in the phrasing of the dissenting opinion below) will "equip them for modern American life". Even the privacy of the psyche is here threatened. Amish personalities are quiet mannered, non-aggressive, considerate, and careful in action; they are threatened with painful restructuring by stress upon the competition, ambition, consumerism, and speed emphasized in the larger society. For the State to reach into the Amish community with this sort of conscription of minor children is plainly to enter upon the domina of privacy of the Amish people. As has been seen, the effect will necessarily be disruptive of the Amish community, which here seeks only protection of "conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness: among which is "the right to be let alone".

Teaching and learning

Central to free exercise is the right of religious groups to transmit their religious beliefs and heritage to their young. Correlative to the right of the parent to teach his religion to his child is the right of the child to received this religion -- a right asserted in testimony given in this case. That the Amish religion is taught according to methods which, in considerable part, differ from those employed by other religious bodies, should in no sense be deemed to result in a diminution of this liberties for Amish people. While, for many Catholics, Jews , and Protestants religious expression in the family, attendance at a parochial high school, or involvement in events at churn or temple are the means whereby religion is transmitted, at the time of adolescence, through directed participation and apprenticed community activities, in addition to the formal religious teaching which is carried out in instruction for baptism and in church services. The moral example of the teacher's life is central. Thus the teaching of the Amish religion does not consist of a weekly Sunday sermon, or morning and night prayers, or an hour of religion class per day, or school instruction in subjects with religious insights thrown in -- but instead, in a constant direction in a "school without walls", of life, in its totality, to religious ends. The State of Wisconsin would here interpose itself between parent and child in the transmitting of a sacred deposit of the Amish religion and at a supremely sensitive time in the life of the child when such interposition will interrupt and thus plainly upset and supplant (perhaps permanently) the effort to impart religion.

The religious liberty invasion in sum

As all three courts in Wisconsin found, the State's action, as applied to the Amish, plainly impinges upon the free exercise of their religion. They face an impossible choice: To obey the State and thereby violate their religion, or to follow their religion and thereby suffer criminal penalty. But the action of the State entails more. The Amish religion is a single fabric into which strands of worship, community, farm life, nature, parental role and the role of children are inseparably interwoven with one another, and all with the set religious teaching. The pulling out of any one strand destroys the fabric.

What is more high schooling presents the Amish with an unacceptable value system. Not only is this due to the very fact of "higher education", but to numerous specifics related to the education afforded at New Glarus High School. These pertain not only to social life, entertainment, curriculum, and the encouraging of competition, but also to the effort of that school to "teach values" with respect to life and moral conduct -- without, however, offering the law of God as normative. The defense presented testimony, moreover, as to the traumatic effect upon an Amish person of fourteen or fifteen years of age caused by placing him or her in a high school. After living for that period of time within the Amish community and being completely conditioned by it, it is only logical that the most severe disturbance and alienation will result to the Amish person from the radical forced change of daily environment, especially at adolescence. As the court below truly stated,

"They would experience a useless anguish in living in two worlds. Either the education they receive in the public school is irrelevant to their lives as members of the Old Order Amish or these secondary school values will make life as Amish impossible."

The State nevertheless demands the obedience of the Amish. Placing all of the foregoing considerations of religious liberty on one side of the scale, the States say that these are outweighed by state interests so compelling as to require conformity by the Amish. While the punishment demanded by the State may have to be suffered by defendants, the State's demand that they violate their religion will almost certainly be in vain. The Amish answer to forms of legal harassment, which would force them to violate their religion, has been to sell their farms and to remove to jurisdictions, here or abroad, wherein hopefully they will be allowed peaceably to follow the will of God. While such enforced exile of the Wisconsin Amish community would constitute but one further aspect of the State's invasion of Amish freedom, it would, if this Court sustains this prosecution, sound the death knell, in this country, for an old, distinctive and innocent culture. The Amish could very soon have no place to go in this country, nowhere to be themselves, and there would take place in America yet another tragic example of the forced extinction of a culture. ("The whites were always trying to make the Indians give up their life and live like white men... and the Indians did not know how to do that, and did not want to anyway... If the Indians had tried to make the whites live like them, the whites would have resisted, and it was the same way with many Indians." Statement of Wamditanka, Chief of the Santee Sioux, circa 1885, in D. Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, 38 (1970).).

In 1849 Henry David Thoreau expressed a principle of justice profoundly relevant here:

"I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; Which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embrace by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-man."

Back to
home page